Indonesia – Planes loaded with everything from lentils to water purifiers touched down across Asia Wednesday, the start of the largest relief effort in history, as aid workers predicted the death toll from this week’s earthquake and tsunamis would top 100,000. Military teams reaching the west coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island for the first time reported scenes of total devastation.
‘We’re facing a disaster of unprecedented proportion in nature,’ said Simon Missiri, Asia Pacific chief at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. ‘We’re talking about a staggering death toll.’
The toll on Wednesday soared to about 77,000.
The survey of Sumatra -nearest the epicenter of Sunday’s massive quake that launched a wall of water around Asia -highlighted the scale of the challenge relief organizations will face in the weeks and months to come.
In the first visit to the battered region, news crews flew over town after town that was covered in mud and sea water. Homes had their roofs ripped off or were flattened. There were few signs of life, except for a handful of villagers scavenging for food on the beach.
‘The damage is truly devastating,’ said Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, the military commander of Sumatra’s Aceh province, who toured the west coast by helicopter. ‘Seventy-five percent of the west coast is destroyed and some places it’s 100 percent. These people are isolated and we will try and get them help.’
With tens of thousands of people still missing, Peter Ress, operations support chief for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the figure for the dead and missing would be ‘absolutely enormous.’
‘I would not be surprised that we are over 100,000 dead when we start seeing what’s happened in, particularly, (India’s) Nicobar and the Andaman Islands,’ he said.
More than 500,000 were reported injured. The federation has so far been unable to assess the total number of missing people.
‘We have little hope, except for individual miracles,’ Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the Accor hotel group, said of the search for thousands of tourists and locals missing from beach resorts of southern Thailand -including 2,000 Scandinavians.
One of those rare miracles was the reunion of an 18-month-old Swedish toddler with his father.
Days after being found alone at a roadside on Thailand’s resort island of Phuket, the boy’s uncle spotted a photo of the scratched and mosquito-bitten toddler. On Wednesday, Hannes and his father, Marko Karkkainen, met for the first time since the tragedy at a hospital where both father and son were receiving treatment.
In another instance, a London-based woman told Britain’s Press Association that a group of youngsters at a Phuket beach were saved when an elephant trainer placed them on the animal’s back and led them to safety before the giant wave crashed ashore.
But there were few reports of miraculous escapes in Indonesia, where the official death toll stood at 45,268. Authorities there said that did not include a full count from Sumatra’s west coast, where more than 10,000 deaths were suspected.
Trucks dumped more than 1,000 unidentified bloated bodies into open graves on Sumatra and the navy sent a flotilla of ships to remote parts of the island.
In India, the death toll rose to nearly 7,000. Not included are some 8,000 missing and feared dead on the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, east of the mainland.
Sri Lanka put its toll at nearly 22,500. Thailand said it had more than 1,800 dead and a total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
Aid groups struggled to head off the threat of cholera and malaria epidemics that could break out where water supplies are polluted with bodies and debris. Four planes arrived in the Sri Lankan capital, bringing a mobile surgical hospital from Finland, a water purification plant from Germany, doctors and medicine from Japan and aid workers from Britain, the Red Cross said.
Supplies that included 175 tons of rice and 100 doctors reached Sumatra’s Banda Aceh. But with aid not arriving quickly enough, desperate people in towns across Sumatra stole whatever food they could find, officials said.